Game designer Mike Mika hacked his Donkey Kong game to allow his 3-year-old daughter to play as the female character Pauline instead of as Mario.
The world of video games has a long history of damsels in distress. It's the go-to framework for endless heroic adventures where fabulous male heroes journey to save [insert female captured by villain here].
One of the earliest of these is the classic tale of a plucky, mustachioed plumber on a vertical, girder-climbing quest to save his lady Pauline from the barrel-throwing primate Donkey Kong. It was the game that would set the stage for a long series of Mario adventures where his princess would continue to be captured and wind up "in another castle."
After being introduced to the game, Mike Mika's 3-year-old daughter, Ellis, asked why she couldn't "play as the girl" and rescue Mario instead. (She'd recently played Super Mario Bros. 2, where you could play as Princess Toadstool). She was disappointed to find that she couldn't.
"So I had to tell her, 'This game doesn't let you do that,'" Mika told All Things Considered. "She was actually bummed out by it."
As a dad, Mika says, he gets the sort of impossible requests often asked by children (like going to the moon to eat cheese, for example). But this time, he realized he had the power to make it happen.
"A light went off," he says. "It's like, 'This I can do. I know I can do this. I have the tools, I have the power.' This is the one thing probably I'll ever be able to do that's outrageous."
So Mika, a game designer by trade and chief creative officer at Other Ocean Interactive, set out to flip the script on the game and make it happen. He spent a furious night of hacking through the game's code and swapping out all of the Mario graphical sprites and color palettes for new ones of Pauline.
"Once I started going, it was like when you pull a string out of a sweater, one thing led to another and another, and it was just really exciting," he says.
He posted his progress on Facebook and YouTube to share with friends. Soon the project found its way to social-sharing site Reddit, where it went viral and earned Mika several superlatives across the Internet including "feminist hero dad" and "dad of the year."
The end result, he writes in Wired, was met with a lot of excitement from his daughter.
"She was excited! But for all she knew, I just figured out how to get Pauline to work. And that was fine. I wasn't expecting it to change her life. We played for a bit. And some more. And again later. You know what? She really did seem to enjoy the game more. For whatever reason, she was more motivated to play as Pauline than as Mario. I can't read into that too much, because it does feel a bit like a new game to her still. So we'll see how she does after a week with it."
This isn't the first time someone has done something like this, though the first time with such a classic game. Last year, Mike Hoye re-scripted a Zelda game to make the hero a girl for his daughter as well.
This story, and ones like it, are becoming part of a larger conversation about gender roles and feminism in the multibillion-dollar video game industry. It's something media critic Anita Sarkeesian is exploring in her recent video series Feminist Frequency.
Mika, however, says he didn't set out to push any sort of feminist agenda or statement. He writes that he simply wanted to "keep that little grin lit up on my daughter's face every time we sit down to play games together."
This also isn't the first time Mika has used his programming skills for the ladies in his life. According to comments from friends on Reddit, Mika also apparently proposed to his wife by hiding a secret code in a game he was working on at the time.